After last week’s cakewalk in Pairc Esler, Rory Gallagher would have been anticipating a much tougher test from Cork in Ballyshannon yesterday. Instead it was more of the same from his charges – blistering speed, wonderful link-play, rugged defence and some fantastic scores.
There seemed to be a sense of surprise amongst the crowd at how easy it all was in the opening exchanges. Cork kept a plethora of bodies back in an attempt to stifle Donegal but it had the reverse effect. The visitors were pinned back and couldn’t escape from their own half of the field in the first quarter.
They struggled from their own restarts, with newcomer Brendan O’Connell in goal finding it almost impossible to retain primary possession with neither long nor short options working.
Aside from the ease with which Donegal scythed through the Rebel rear-guard, the Fr Tierney Park crowd bore witness to another surprise, a collector’s item even – two successive wides in as many minutes from Michael Murphy, including one that was the wrong side of the net rigging behind the goals. If his free taking was befitting something from the Gods last week, Michael was in a more mortal state yesterday. He did include one party piece, a stunning fifty metre strike from the floor but in any case, there were plenty others who had brought their shooting boots, giving The Maestro a well earned break from scoring duty.
Despite incessant rain throughout, it was an unusually placid day in South Donegal (certainly compared to the prevailing conditions in the same fixture last year) with the slight breeze playing no significant part in proceedings. This provided the perfect platform for Patrick McBrearty and Odhran MacNiallais to wow the crowd with their sumptuous shooting.
McBrearty was in outstanding form in last year’s league but niggling injuries kept him from reaching his best in the Summer. If he can stay fit he will torment many a corner back over the coming months. There are few better in the country at getting shots away in limited space; once he wriggles free from his marker and sees a half a yard of daylight, his radar-like left peg usually finds the target.
There’s something different yet very special about seeing a player firing a booming point over the bar off his ciotog. From our own Colm McFadden to past figures like Jarlath Fallon or Stephen O’Neill, the technique of these greats is wonderful to witness. McBrearty and MacNiallais are certainly keeping up the trend with aplomb.
Odhran grabbed all the headlines yesterday with his 1-4 tally from his roving midfield/half forward role. Time and again he drifted in and out of moves, taking and giving hand passes, keeping the ball in transit and then whenever he arrives at the end of a move in space he lets fly with that languid motion.
While the aforementioned duo led the scoring stats, the man who had the most influence on proceedings was Eoin McHugh. He had an excellent match last week but lifted his game to another level yesterday. He was involved in so many of Donegal’s scores, often initiating attacks with his direct running. Despite the modern game being analysed to the nth degree, there is one thing that can never be coached – pace. At times the Cork defence simply could not keep up with McHugh. One example was McBrearty’s point that started at the other end of the pitch with a brilliant goal-saving touch from Neil McGee. The ball was fed to McHugh on the touchline who accelerated away, leaving two Cork defenders trailing in his wake trying in vain to catch him.
McHugh has great maturity and awareness of what is around him at any given time and an innate understanding of the game. As he surveyed his options in the lead up to the second goal yesterday, he was well within his rights to tap over a simple point. Instead he sensed a goal opportunity and worked the ball across to McGee who fed MacNiallais to drill to the net. Goals are more important than ever before in Gaelic football; a breach of a well organised defence is worth as much in the psychological stakes as the green flag that follows.
There is no let-up for defenders against this current Donegal setup; anytime Eoin needs a breather, up steps his cousin Ryan. With a McHugh stationed on either wing, Donegal’s running threat never ceases and if the lads are in full flow, it is close to being undefendable.
Eoin played a big part in the game’s opening goal, finding space on the 21 before returning Martin O’Reilly’s pass and the Mac Cumhaills man did the rest. Following his sojourn at half back against Down, O’Reilly returned to an inside attacking role this week and displayed all his killer instincts in finishing low past O’Connell.
It was another flowing, short passing move much like two of the majors plundered in Newry. These types of precise attacks replete with one-twos, give and go’s and quick hands are much easier to execute since the advent of the black card and in particular the penalty for the illegal block after a player has played a pass.
The other black card category offences remain contentious, Ciaran Thompson was the latest to fall foul of the ambiguity of implementation. He was sent to the line for a late shoulder on an opponent yet despite being floored with an even later hit after delivering his pass in the build up to the second goal, McHugh’s aggressor stayed on the field. These aren’t majorly defining match incidents when the margin of victory reaches double figures but come Championship these could be the difference between winning and losing.
Up until then Thompson was having another good outing, although he was outdone by his brother in the scoring stakes. As is now customary, like Scholes or Lampard in their pomp, Anthony can run the length of the field unnoticed and suddenly appear, stealth-like, in yards of space to pop over the simplest of scores. Twice he managed the trick in the first half and the remainder of his work was carried out with the minimum of fuss but the greatest efficiency.
Even towards the end of the game, with stoppage time approaching, Thompson was covering his defence, doing his job in his unassuming way before throwing himself in front of a goal bound Cork shot.
Paddy McGrath is another who rarely seems too concerned about his own personal safety if it’s for the good of the team. He epitomises the collective effort of the team and in one instance in the first half was quite happy to get a belt in the face knowing that a free was on its way. He took the hit, put the ball down and jogged back to his wing back spot – no fuss, just business.
That was the mantra for everyone yesterday. Even though the lead was increasing throughout the second half, there was no slacking off in concentration or exertion. Hugh McFadden was among the most vocal on the field, constantly barking out orders, reminding those in front of him who to pick up and cajoling them to expend the last drops of energy they had left in the tank.
McGrath did a number on one of Cork’s most influential operators, Paul Kerrigan, who was such a threat against Mayo last week. His trademarks runs were missing yesterday as the terrier from Ardara completely nullified his contribution.
Another of the star performers in Cork’s win over Mayo last week, Daniel Goulding, had a similarly frustrating afternoon. With Eamonn Doherty keeping him company, he found it almost impossible to break free from the shackles of the Eunan’s defender, who appeared to be in cruise control. Indeed, Goulding only managed to score from play after Doherty had been removed from the action before the hour mark.
So as the lads escape whatever storms are heading our way next, they head for sunnier climes in fine fettle. Five goals scored in two games and only fifteen scores conceded means a healthy points difference and top spot in the Division One standings.
Another win will secure safety and anything after that will be deemed bonus territory. Our old friends Mayo are up next and with Stephen Rochford experiencing somewhat of a baptism of fire in the manager’s hotseat, the joust in Ballybofey in three weeks has all the makings of a feisty encounter.